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Israelis, Palestinians Open US-Backed Conference with Vague Statement on Timeline, Goals

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Israel and the Palestinian Authority have agreed to launch immediately peace negotiations with the goal of reaching a full treaty by the end of 2008. But Israel has already said it will delay talks on core issues, including the status of Jerusalem, the borders of a Palestinian state, the future of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and the fate of Palestinian refugees. We speak with Palestinian lawmaker and physician Mustafa Barghouti and former Israeli peace negotiator Daniel Levy. [includes rush transcript]

For more on the Annapolis conference, we are joined by two guests. They both join us from Washington, D.C.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: In Annapolis, Maryland on Tuesday, Israel and the Palestinian Authority announced they have agreed to immediately launch peace negotiations with the goal of reaching a full treaty by the end of 2008. President Bush opened the Annapolis conference by reading aloud a joint statement agreed upon by the two sides just minutes before.

    PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: The representatives of the government of the state of Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization, represented respectively by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and President Mahmoud Abbas in his capacity as Chairman of the PLO Executive Committee —

AMY GOODMAN: Bush went on to say Israel and the Palestinians would try to reach an agreement on a treaty and Palestinian statehood by the end of next year, when Bush is due to leave office. The first negotiations would start on December 12, with meetings to be held every two weeks after that.

The announcement was made before high-level diplomats from nearly fifty countries and international bodies. They included top envoys from more than a dozen Arab states, including Syria and Saudi Arabia.

In his speech, President Bush said reaching a full peace deal by the end of 2008 is possible. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said the talks must include the status of Jerusalem as a Palestinian capital and the future of refugees.

    PRESIDENT MAHMOUD ABBAS: [translated] To achieve that, peace does not depend on the Arab and Islamic position itself, but requires meeting this position with a reciprocal strategic willingness that would basically lead to ending the occupation in all Palestinian occupied territories of 1967, including East Jerusalem, as well as the Syrian Golan and what remains of occupied Lebanese territories, as well as all other issues relating to the conflict, especially the Palestinian refugee question.

AMY GOODMAN: Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told conference attendees the negotiations inaugurated at Annapolis would address issues that previous talks had avoided.

    PRIME MINISTER EHUD OLMERT: [translated] We will not shy away from any topic. We will deal with all the core issues. I have no doubt that the reality that emerged in our region will change significantly. This will be an extremely difficult process for all of us, but it nevertheless is inevitable.

AMY GOODMAN: While the Bush administration has sought to portray the Annapolis conference as a milestone, skepticism of the outcome is high. Major differences remain between the Israelis and Palestinians over core issues like the status of Jerusalem, the border of a Palestinian state, the future of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and the fate of Palestinian refugees.

Meanwhile, Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, was not invited to the conference. The group denounced the talks, as tens of thousands of supporters rallied in Gaza City in protest. In the West Bank, Palestinian security forces broke up several protests against the Annapolis gathering. One man was killed in Hebron, at least thirty-five people wounded. And in Jerusalem, Israelis gathered at the Western Wall to protest against the conference.

For more on the Annapolis conference, we’re joined by two guests. Mustafa Barghouti is an independent Palestinian lawmaker and democracy activist. He is the former information minister of the Palestinian Authority. In 2005, he ran for president, finishing second to Mahmoud Abbas. Daniel Levy is a former Israeli peace negotiator. He served as adviser to the governments of Ehud Barak and Yitzhak Rabin. He is currently a senior fellow of the Middle East Policy Initiative at the New America Foundation. They join us both from Washington, D.C.

Daniel Levy, what did you expect to come of the conference? Did it meet your expectations?

DANIEL LEVY: Well, the expectations were low, Amy. And thank you for having us on, and it’s an honor to be with you. And when the expectations are low, they expectations can be met. So I think we knew in advance that this conference wasn’t going to be about substance.

MUSTAFA BARGHOUTI: I can’t hear him. Is he speaking?

DANIEL LEVY: What we weren’t sure is whether they’d get the optics right. Here, I think Secretary Rice has something of a feather in her cap. She got all the attendees there. She got a joint statement. We had uplifting speeches. And we got a presidential commitment. That means at least that they’ve got more invested in this than they have for the last seven years. So at least when there’s an investment, you’ve got a bit more to lose.


DANIEL LEVY: Having said that, everything now is about what happens next on the ground. Are there serious negotiations, or do the negotiations get stalled? And the daily situation that you had a little report about there, does that daily situation improve for the people, or is it just as dreadful? And if it’s the negative side of that ledger — and unfortunately that’s probably where the bookmakers would be — then no one comes out of yesterday smelling of roses, and we’re all back where we started.

So I think it’s good that the Americans are engaged again, but the kind of engagement matters, and I’m not sure we’re going to see a change. I was very worried by the old divisive global war on terror — dividing the world into good and bad — narrative that the President used yesterday.

AMY GOODMAN: Mustafa Barghouti, your response to the summit at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis?

MUSTAFA BARGHOUTI: Well, the only official thing that came out of this is the statement, the joint statement, and in that statement, the Palestinian delegation failed to present any of the Palestinian demands. Basically, the Palestinian delegation, being very weak and with great doubts about how representative it is, made one concession after the other. And everything they promised the Palestinian people, they failed to achieve. They didn’t mention the issue of Jerusalem; the issue of borders; the freeze of settlements, which we’ve been asking for. And basically the whole document and the whole outcome of the meeting has practically met every Israeli need or demand. What Livni promised has happened, which is that security comes before negotiations, and it becomes a condition of negotiations. What is most drastic is that after all this big gathering and all these expenses on such a conference, or a meeting, all we get is the same road map that was there back in 2003 and that was never implemented.

And in my opinion, what happened was very risky, because instead of discussing the real issues, the Israeli side managed to mobilize the American side; to marginalize completely the Quartet, which has no role from now on; to completely ignore and omit any mentioning of the basis and reference of negotiations, like UN resolutions, United Nations decisions —-

AMY GOODMAN: The Quartet being -— Mustafa Barghouti, the —-

MUSTAFA BARGHOUTI: —- everything that used to be mentioned, like international law, international humanitarian law. Everything was dismissed. The only reference that remains is what Israelis accept and what they don’t accept. And the whole issue becomes an issue of how the Palestinian Authority will be transformed to become a security subagent for occupation. And that is a condition. If the Palestinian Authority does not fulfill that, which is objectively impossible, then there will be no progress on any field. In my opinion, that is very dangerous. And it is really quite dangerous that the Israelis managed to get everything they want without any balance.

AMY GOODMAN: The fact, Mustafa Barghouti, that Saudi Arabia appeared in this kind of summit with Israel for the first time, a public meeting?

MUSTAFA BARGHOUTI: This is not the first time, by the way. This is again exaggerated. Saudi Arabia attended the first international conference in Madrid Conference — in Madrid, sorry.


MUSTAFA BARGHOUTI: In 1991. And they were present there. And Saudi Arabia was instrumental in presenting the Arab initiative, which drew a very detailed plan of how peace could be achieved, mainly specifying that Israel must end the occupation of Palestinian territories and Arab territories, and in exchange Israel would get complete and full recognition and total peace with all Arab countries. Unfortunately, even the Arab initiative not mentioned. And the Saudis said they came with great hesitation. I am sure they came because they didn’t want to upset the United States. But I think all the Arab countries will probably walk out of this conference feeling very bad about how they were treated, about ignoring the Arab initiative. And I know that the Israelis consider this as a big achievement, because they think this gives them a green line now for — a green light now for normalization with Arab countries without solving the Palestinian issue.

But in my opinion, you know, Palestinians have made a big compromise. The Arabs have supported that compromise, which is two-state solution. The Palestinians have accepted to have a state in less than half of what was assigned to them back in the United Nations resolutions in ’47. And now what are they getting? The Road Map. You know, there comes a point where you cannot further compromise the compromise. And what happened in Annapolis was basically, in my opinion, a big blow to the possibility of peace based on two-state solution. And this might be the last opportunity.

AMY GOODMAN: Daniel Levy, your response?

DANIEL LEVY: I’m afraid I only caught the very end of Mustafa’s comments.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, one of the key issues that he’s talked about is that basically Israel got its way at this conference, and he also felt that the Palestinian negotiating team was very weak.

DANIEL LEVY: First, I think the Palestinian negotiating team were starting from a weak hand. First of all, there’s the structural reality of the conflict, which Mustafa, of course, is more aware of than myself, which is the imbalance between occupier and occupied. When the outside power that convenes the conference is also historically closer to the occupier, then, of course, you really have an entire process that’s out of sync.

I think Mustafa, in that respect, referred to the Quartet. You see, the Quartet was an opportunity to redress that balance, in a way, and to have the international community, alongside the Americans, giving this not only more international legitimacy, but a different framing. And I think yesterday, reading between the lines, was almost the death of the Quartet, because all the follow-up and all the monitoring will be exclusively American-led.

AMY GOODMAN: And just to clarify, the Quartet being European Union, the United Nations, Russia and the United States.

DANIEL LEVY: Absolutely. I can maybe set Mustafa a little bit at ease in terms of where the Israeli papers have come out this morning. The Israeli papers are not celebrating this as a great victory for Prime Minister Olmert, and they’re focusing more on the — this was not normalization. And I think in that respect, Mustafa is right. There was an element of prematurity about bringing all the world together for something that was the beginning of the beginning of new negotiations.

The possible positive is that there’s a momentum out of these talks. But the negative, as Mustafa says — and I agree with him — is that you can’t do a conference like this every week, OK? So if you bring together this kind of a conference and something serious does not come out of it, then we’re in an even worse place, not only because hopes have been raised and expectations dashed, but because also here, I mean, you, the people listening to this, think, “Oh, you know, these guys have been killing each other for thousands of years. They’ll carry on. And why should we bother being involved?” And everyone loses faith and loses belief. And that’s a net negative.

I would argue that that means we have to do everything, despite all the odds being, you know, not great. We have to do everything to try and turn this into a process that works. I agree that that’s very difficult and that the leadership role played by the United States would have to be radically different to what it has been in the last seven years.

AMY GOODMAN: One of the other issues Mustafa Barghouti raised was the sidelining of the Arab League deal. Why is it taking so long for that to be acted on for a Palestinian state, Daniel?

DANIEL LEVY: Absolutely. And I think — let me speak as an Israeli and a former Israeli official here. I think we’ve gotten to “yes.” The Arab initiative is Israel getting the recognition it yearned for ever since its establishment and its creation. Mustafa’s right: in 1991, at the Madrid Conference, everyone was there. People forget that in 1996 there was a summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, where the Arabs States attended, together with Israel and President Clinton. So we’ve been building and building, and in 2002, there it is: a formal Arab League initiative offering full normal relations for a comprehensive — comprehensive — land for peace. That should have been the “yes” moment for Israel.

Somehow, we’ve plodded through the last five years, partly because Ariel Sharon was prime minister, and I don’t think he had any intentions to make peace, partly because President Bush was the president of the United States, and he made no effort whatsoever to turn this Arab initiative into a workable peace process. The challenge for Israel — and by the way, I think for all his detractors and for all the reality on the ground, which I think Olmert has not done anything significant to improve, I do think the Israeli prime minister spoke in very empathetic and sincere terms yesterday, and I give him some credit for that. But the real challenge is, can Israel embrace this offer and say yes to the '67 lines, say yes to, in fact, 78% of mandatory Palestine?

AMY GOODMAN: What is Israel's interest in rejecting the deal?

DANIEL LEVY: You know, Amy, I wish I could tell you and give you a good answer. My best answer at that is, there are groups inside Israel who are not inconsequential, who are Greater Land of Israel territorialists, who believe that this is God-given land. You have your own religious fundamentalists here in this country. That’s one section, and they’re quite effective politically, and prime ministers tend to be worried when they go against them.

You also have security hawks, who will always find the security reason why, even if we can make a compromise one day, we can’t do it tomorrow, and we need to be here for our security. In 2007, to tell me I need a hill on the West Bank for my security, I think, is ridiculous.

But there’s a third reason, which is that Israel, rather than turning to its friend America and that friend saying, “Hey, guys, this is in your interest, it’s in our interest, let’s do this,” America is normally saying, “If you want to carry on your crazy self-destructive policy of occupation, don’t expect us to change it for you. In fact, we’ll continue to back you.” It’s like a drunkard turning to his friend and the friend giving him another bottle of vodka and then giving him the car keys.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to break and come back to this discussion. We’ll get Mustafa Barghouti’s response. We’re speaking with Daniel Levy, who’s a former Israel peace negotiator and has served as adviser to the governments of Ehud Barak and Yitzhak Rabin. We’ve also been speaking with Mustafa Barghouti, independent Palestinian lawmaker and democracy activist. We’ll be back with both of them in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking about the US Naval Academy at Annapolis summit that took place yesterday. It’s continuing today in Washington, D.C., where our guests are. Our guests are Mustafa Barghouti, a medical doctor, head of the Palestinian National Initiative, independent Palestinian lawmaker, a presidential candidate and democracy activist. He was the former information minister of the Palestinian Authority. Daniel Levy is with the New America Foundation, a former Israeli peace negotiator under both Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak.

Mustafa Barghouti, respond to what Daniel Levy has said and also what’s happening on the ground right now in West Bank and Gaza and the fact that Hamas was not included, what that means.

MUSTAFA BARGHOUTI: Well, first of all, let me say that I almost agree with most of what Daniel said. I think we’re both in agreement because we both see that there is not only a loss of opportunity here, but even a killing of an opportunity.

Originally, Israel occupied the Palestinian and Arab territories in ’67, and since then it’s been claiming that it wants peace and that the territory can be exchanged with peace. The Palestinians made their deal. They made their compromise by accepting a small little tiny state in West Bank and Gaza as a solution. And the Arabs have made the deal, the compromise, and said if Israel ends occupation they will have peace with Israel.

What we see today is an Israeli retraction from that. What we saw in Annapolis is a situation where the Israelis are saying occupation will continue, basically, and the Americans are saying that’s OK. And instead of talking about final settlements that would end all the elements of the conflict, they are talking again about the Road Map, which was invented in 2003, and that has failed.

What does it mean? It means that the Road Map includes two basic points in the first stage. The first one is that Israel should freeze all settlement activities. But now the Israelis are saying freeze of settlement activities does not mean stopping the growth of settlements that already exist, and there are 133 settlements already in the West Bank and Gaza Strip that were built illegally. These are colonial colonies that are illegal by international law. They say, “We want to continue their growth, but we will not build new settlements.” Well, they don’t need new settlements, because already 133 is enough to destroy the option and potential for a Palestinian state.

On the Palestinians side, the first stage obliges them to provide certain security measures, which would simply mean that the Palestinian Authority should become a security subagent for Israeli occupation. This is the first time in history of human beings that the people who are under occupation, who are under oppression, who live in an apartheid system, have to provide protection to their occupier, who happens to be Israel, which has the fourth, probably, largest military force in the world, being the strongest military force in the region, having a larger nuclear arsenal than France, a bigger air force than Britain, and definitely it is the fourth or fifth largest military exporter in the world.

The Palestinians cannot fulfill that demand, and that’s why they’re doomed to fail, because if they become a security subagent for Israel, first of all, this is difficult to achieve, because they don’t have sovereignty, they don’t control the roads. The Palestinian Authority cannot even move hundred policemen from one city to another, because we are under occupation. On the other hand, if they go far in oppressing their own people, they will lose completely their legitimacy. So, in my opinion, the Road Map is about putting Palestinians in front of an impossible mission and then use that as an excuse for Israel to impose its unilateral solution, which is nothing but an apartheid system.

In talking about that and the reality on the ground, let me just give you a few figures. Israel maintains 562 military checkpoints. They didn’t remove a single one of them. There are also 610 flying checkpoints that make the people’s life miserable. It doesn’t allow freedom of movement. It prevents freedom of economy. It prevents people’s accessibility to health and education. More than that, Israel is continuing to build the apartheid wall, which will be three times the length of the Berlin Wall and would destroy contiguity of the Palestinian territories.

And in addition to that, in daily life, what you see is a very profound system of discrimination. On average, a Palestinian is allowed to use no more than fifty cubic meters of water per year, while an Israeli illegal colonialist can use up to 2,400. We have to pay double the price for water and electricity. And we pay for our own water, which Israel controls. Out of 936 million cubic meters of water in the West Bank, Israel takes away 800 million. And if you take GDP, for instance, the Israeli GDP now is thirty times more than the Palestinian gross domestic product. At the same time, we are obliged to buy products at Israeli market price, and we are obliged by the agreements that were concluded before to give Israel our taxes, and then Israel will decide whether we can use our own money for our health needs or education facilities or to pay the salaries of teachers and doctors. This is nothing but a system of discrimination that can only be called an apartheid system.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask Daniel Levy about your description, which is not yours alone, of comparing the situation in Gaza and West Bank as an apartheid system. Yesterday, Daniel Levy, we played a speech of the former South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu that he gave in Boston. He was disinvited from the University of Saint Thomas in St. Paul for making comparisons to apartheid, but he has been reinvited to that university to speak. Would you call it an apartheid system?

DANIEL LEVY: Well, I guess some people might expect at this stage that, as a patriotic Israeli, I reject the comparison and I explain that, against all our best intentions, Israel has been forced into this occupation, there’s nothing we’d like more than to end it. I’m not going to do that, because I’m not going to defend the settlements and the occupation, because I’m a patriotic Israeli. And to me, the fight over the descriptive word of whether this is apartheid or not — and plenty of Israelis would use that terminology also — is less important than saying we’ve got to end this occupation, we’ve got to end the settlements. And as a patriotic Israeli, I’m not going to defend something that is so against Israel’s national interest, just as I imagine many people would say, “I’m a patriotic American, and that’s why I think this war in Iraq or bombing Iran would be an absolute disaster for America, and that makes me more of a patriot than the people who are going to tell me, no, you have to stand behind the military, etc.”

Mustafa, with or without the term — and all I’m saying is I think the debate can sometimes distract us, because I think the important thing, especially, is the equation that Mustafa drew out, and it’s one that people have, for some reason, real difficulty getting their heads around. And we saw a repeat, as he said, of the same equation yesterday, which is that somehow, under conditions of occupation, Palestinians will provide Israelis with full security. Now, many Israelis are mature enough and have experienced this for long enough that we understand that that’s a nonsense, that occupation and security don’t go together. Sure, we would like to see more security, even as we pursue a peace process. And absolutely, a post-occupation Israel should be absolutely secure and live in peace, and there should be no question of violence being used by their neighbors.

AMY GOODMAN: Daniel Levy, you’ve been living in Washington, D.C. Can you talk about the climate here? As you said, this was a US initiative, this summit in Annapolis. What are the forces, the pressures on the Bush administration? Who are they responding to? Do you think there is less of a debate in this country than there is in Israel?

DANIEL LEVY: Well, there is less of a debate. I mean, everyone constantly heaps praise on the vibrant democracy that is Israel, and rightly so. I mean, that’s one of the things I most love about my country. But I wish, in the heaping of that praise, people would be as open and as self-critical and as questioning about everything that goes on there as we are. Back home, just to take one example, look at the pages of Haaretz today. Haaretz’s lead foreign editor turns around and says the most important thing that would happen next would be if you had Palestinian unity talks between Fatah and Hamas.

And I know Mustafa knows they’re not the only factions, and I respect your Mubadara initiative, but I think sometimes it’s too easy to say that there is a monolithic lobby here that stifles debate. I don’t think that elected public officials in America or the broader American public should get off that easy, if I may say so. I think, you know, every American has the right and the ability to say that they think this matters, that they think that we’re doing America no favors, Israel no favors, and certainly the Palestinians no favors, by not putting front and center the fact that we need a peace now that’s based on an end of occupation.

Yes, a Bush administration has a rightwing Republican Jewish constituency that’s very rightwing, and you hear the language of the candidates today. You have the Christian fundamentalist Zionist right, who are actually, in many ways, more aggressive than the national Jewish organizations in some of their positions. You have the neoconservatives, who I think have been the most disastrous factor. But on the Democrat side, I’d like to see more people saying, “Hey, we can’t go along with this war on terror narrative. We can’t go along with business as usual.” The majority of American Jews are with us on this. You have great organizations out there: Israel Policy Forum, Americans for Peace Now, Brit Tzedek v’Shalom. And we should get behind those and other initiatives to try and say this is the alternative to the current policy, not more of the same that some, at least, of the Democrat candidates unfortunately give voice to.

AMY GOODMAN: Mustafa Barghouti, we’re going to end with you. I also want to ask you about the prisoners, more than 400 prisoners the Israeli government released — your response to that — ahead of these talks.

MUSTAFA BARGHOUTI: Well, that’s another joke or a misleading statement, because Israel is going to release 432 prisoners. Half of them have finished already half of their term. One-third have already finished two-thirds of their terms. But the most important thing is that during the same period of time, Israel has arrested 1,650 new prisoners. Since January, up ’til now, Israel released 900 prisoners, with — including the 432 they will release this week. But during the same period of time, Israel has arrested 3,750 new Palestinian prisoners. So the total number of prisoners is increasing. And we are having now 11,500 prisoners in Israeli jails. Most of them are political prisoners, including ninety women, including 350 children that are kept in jail, including many leaders, including forty-six members of our Palestinian parliament.

And nobody is protesting against that. I mean, I feel very — it’s really interesting when people speak about democracy, but at the same time not a single word is said about Israel arresting one-third of the members of the Palestinian parliament.

On the other hand, I want to make one clarification here. When I struggle for the freedom of the Palestinian people and struggle for ending this apartheid system and this occupation, I do not see myself and my colleagues as people who struggle only for Palestinians. I feel I have struggled also for Israelis, because an Israel that is creating an apartheid system in the twenty-first century is not going to be secure, and an Israeli state that creates apartheid and continues occupation leaves its citizens with a very bad feeling, because they cannot feel proud about being the only apartheid in this world at this time. And that’s why I think the struggle we do is not only for Palestinians; it’s for our freedom, but it’s also for their freedom, because only when occupation ends and only when this injustice and discrimination stops, then Israelis themselves will feel really free.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to leave it there. I want to thank you both very much for being with us. Mustafa Barghouti ran for president. He is an independent Palestinian lawmaker, a medical doctor, former information minister of the Palestinian Authority, ran for president, lost to Mahmoud Abbas. We also have been joined by Daniel Levy, former Israeli peace negotiator who is now with the New America Foundation, served as an adviser to the governments of Ehud Barak and Yitzhak Rabin.

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